Nate Brown, Creative Director
There are a lot of labels you could put on Nate Brown - director, actor, model, creative director, founder. Good luck. How he has gone from traveling (and biking and skating) around the world as a kid to being the Creative Director of Kanye's last two world tours, with little to no formal training, gives you a glimpse into who Nate Brown is. In Nate's World, customs, boxes, and rules are 100 percent made to be broken. And if there's one thing we've learned from him, this might just be the recipe for success. That, and waking up at 4:30 AM everyday...
Can you tell us about journey? What it is that has brought you to where you are today?
I was born in Hershey, Pennsylvania - where they make Hershey's Chocolate - but I only lived there for a few months. I traveled around every year as a kid, and that brought me all across the United States, and then eventually to New Zealand. We lived in this beautiful little town on the top of the south island in a place called Marlborough Sounds, which is where Marlborough wine is from. My first job was picking leaves off grapevines in a Vineyard. I'm pretty sure that job has been replaced by robots now or some sort of automation.
After New Zealand, we lived in Hawaii, and a bunch of other places in the U.S., and then ended up in New York. In New York, I started working for Dov Charney, and he was really at the foothills of the expansion of American Apparel. I had really long hair at the time and one side of it was white and the other side was green, and I was working in the back stock. Dov took a liking to me and thought I was a random, crazy little kid. I quickly moved from working in the back stock to helping him open up different American Apparel stores in New York. That role quickly transformed into something very strange. Did you ever see Up In The Air with George Clooney where he plays a corporate downsizer? That's basically what my role turned into, and I was not prepared for that. I was an 18 year old kid and at that point I'd been working there for two years, and I eventually just quit. I ended up doing this random movie in Japan called "Enter the Void", which was a cult film by this crazy director, Gaspar Noé. I lived in Japan for three months, shot this movie, and then I came back to New York and I was photographed for a Barney's campaign as a model. Nothing that I was interested in doing. I was a kid and didn't want to turn anything down, so they asked me if I wanted to be in the campaign, and I was always like, "Sure, why not?"
That's where I met my first mentors - besides my mom obviously - Lina Kutsovskaya, the advertising director at Barney's, and her husband who was shooting the campaigns. We did a shoot in Miami together and one day on set, she asked me what I wanted to do, and I was like, "I want to do exactly what you do." She responded by saying "Awesome, you can start tomorrow,". When we got back to New York we started bouncing ideas back and forth and shooting little films and photo shoots.
The best way to describe what we created was like this playground where all young brands and young contemporary designers that were starting out and couldn't afford advertising, needed a platform to show the identity of the brand and the creative sort of aspects of the brand. We developed this thing called The Window, which was a media platform, and it helped launch Alex Wang and Phillip Lim and Robert Geller, a bunch of really cool contemporary, now staple names.
That led to me shooting a lot of fashion campaigns, which, specifically, led to a lot of beauty campaigns. Beauty was really random for me and not something that I had really planned on.
So...how did you meet Kanye?
After I left Barney's, I had a photo agent and production company for several years. I remember I was in a hotel in Paris drawing all these storyboards, and I had gotten to the point where I wasn't really excited by what I was doing. I couldn't sell women's eyelash curlers anymore - it's just not what I was put on this earth to do. I think we were 36 frames deep in this storyboard for an eyelash curler, and on the other side, I had my computer open and I had gotten an email from my agent saying "Hey, Kanye wants to speak to you. Can I give him your phone number or whatever?" I thought it was joke so I just responded, "Yeah sure, have him call me if he really wants to talk to me." Then instantly my phone rang and it was an unknown number and I was like, "Oh shit". It was 3 o'clock in the morning.
I picked up the phone and I hear, "Yo, it's Ye." That's how he talks, you know. We ended up speaking for like three hours. He was like, "You should come to Alabama. I'm staging Watch the Throne tour. I don't really know how you could be involved but I like some of the work you've done. Just come check it out." So I called my French production company and I was just like, "I can't do this project, I'm sorry, bye." Literally curled the storyboard up in the trash, jumped on the first flight out, went to Alabama, and Kanye and I started working together on everything.
I think the draw for me was that the email literally read, "Hey, let's change the world." At that point, I didn't want to shoot beauty products anymore. There was nothing about that that motivated me to get out of bed in the morning. We started working together on a bunch of really cool things and I ended up working with a bunch of other artists on some tours and projects. Then I started to form the studio out of that work. I kept that parallel of fashion because that was really the meat of my background, the roots of how I grew up, and then applied that to music.
What is Institute?
We're not an advertising agency so we don't sell products to people. Instead, we give people some kind of experience, and if they want to participate, they can. And if they want to find a way to pledge allegiance to a certain brand afterwards, they can do that too. But there's no agenda behind our campaigns. We don't do print ads, we don't do broadcast ads. We just do things, whether it's in a digital space or a physical space, that adds some kind of value to people's lives, offers them an experience, and tells a story.
Looking back at your journey on a high level, it can all seem super glamorous and awesome. Were there obstacles? Were you ever like, "wow, this sucks"?
Yeah, to this day it's not glamorous! There's no glamour. I have internal dialogues every single day where I wake up, more often than not, scared shitless. Is this the right thing? Are we taking this in the right direction? Are we doing this at the best possible capacity?
There's been immense obstacles. There constantly are. I just try to create a mechanism that takes the obstacle in front of me and turns it into some sort of challenge that I have to figure out how to work around. It can be fun sometimes. Eventually you start to get into this rhythm of 'there are no obstacles'. All of a sudden you start attacking all stress - whether it's around a financial thing, a project-based thing, or a personal thing - in a similar capacity with the same kind of compassion and the the same kind of non-reaction. With business, nothing can be hyper reactionary. You have to step back a second and say, "Wait, let's look at this. Is this really the mountain that can't be overcome?" No, of course it can. It's like turning chore into challenge.
You said at one point that 'you knew this was not you're meant to do'. How did you know that there was something you were put on the earth to do?
I think it comes back to the human endeavor and experience, that's the thing that realigns me. Are we doing things that other people can enjoy? Does it add value to someone's life? Does it take a step, even the tiniest step, in a direction towards a world that we're all excited to live in? Time is literally every single second forward. It's never happened before this second. It's some earthy, weird shit. The reality is we're the ones responsible to help guide that path for all those people and that's what I'm most connected to.
Whether it's creative work or working with brands, the reality is at the end of the day, we work with a lot of brands whose goal is to sell things. It's fine. Let's accept that. The question is then: how can we turn that conversation into something that accomplishes that in a way that has a strong connection to integrity, and a strong connection to honesty, and a strong connection to stuff that we can enjoy?
So we hear you wake up at 4:30 am everyday....Can you tell us about your daily routine?
4:30 am, 4:45 am, yeah. I wake up and I drink a protein smoothie. Just whey protein. I don't like to buy it from anyone else, so I just go straight for the manufacturer, and they store it and send it to me. It's something I'm not going to stop doing anytime soon, so I might as well just buy it wholesale. So, I drink that with eight ounces of water, then I get my gym gear on and go to the gym. I work out for like an hour and a half, and at this point it's only 6:30 am, so, I come back home, make breakfast, - generally eggs and spinach and chicken - and take a couple of supplements. I've been very intrigued by supplements my whole life. I take multi-vitamins, glutamine, and Nootropics, which is basically different blends of different things. Then I come to the office and generally work all day, then go home, and go to sleep. I go to bed early....like, really early. I think by New York standards it's really, really early. I'm like embarrassed to say it out loud...
The problem with being a morning person is you start to get kind of psychotic about it. I think morning people are a little bit weird. They want to be up before everyone else. Then they don't just want to be up before everyone else, they want to be up before the sun. It's like I want to be up before the earth turns this way. It's like being vegan. You're like, "I'm a morning person!!". You'll sit down to have a conversation and you're like, "Did you guys know? I'm a morning person." You just get crazier and crazier and crazier.
Have you always been interested in health & wellness?
Literally, since I was young. I went through so many different weird phases of nutritional changes, always trying to eat for something. I was full a raw foodist for a year and a half. I had the vegan mix and the dehydrator and everything. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, by the way, it was the worst brain rattling ever, I felt so empty of everything. I ended up coming out of it when I was in Dallas, where, by the way, you don't eat raw food. It just doesn't exist. I remember I was ordering and my friend ordered steak tacos, and the waitress came over and was like, "What are you having honey? You want steak tacos too?". For a microsecond, I was like, "No, I'll just get some carrots.", and then I blurted out, "Yes, steak tacos,". I was just over it, and it was the most amazing feeling.
I'm an extremist. It's a blessing and a curse because you'll get into something, and you'll get into it fully and immerse yourself in it completely. My mother always said there's no grey area. Don't live in that grey area. Black or white. Grey area is where we sit in this complacency, and i think complacency is one of the worst things we could do. I would say that cynicism and complacency are two antonyms to how I try to live my life. If I've decided to do something, I will dedicate myself to it fully. Moderation is clearly something I need to learn too...
What are some of your favorite projects you worked on?
All of them! I guess I would say any project where we introduced industries that weren't super compatible, or that were compatible but hadn't connected yet. We did this crazy project with Calvin Klein in Palm Springs during Coachella where we worked with a lot of friends and people we collaborate with often, and gave them a platform to create something really awesome. We took over this hotel called the L'Horizon, which is this beautiful Mid-Century that was home to some 1950. It was 12 bungalows, and we gave one to each collaborator. My friend Virgil curated the whole thing so we had this amazing group of people, actresses, actors, musicians, and we had Boiler Room - which is a platform genuinely obsessed with - do the music.
The Formation Tour with Beyonce was obviously awesome too. That was fun because at the same time I was designing the gym for Nike on 45 Grand Street, so I was doing the visual stuff for Beyonce's show, and designing the gym on like a napkin, and sending it to Paris for them to render at like 3 o'clock in the morning. I was up at all hours of the day like a zombie. Needless to say, completely screwed up my mornings.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Comfort and creativity are slightly different. I don't want to say they're opposite, but I don't know how many groundbreaking ideas come from sitting at your computer all day. For me, those moments of comfort in the day are the moments where I can take all that stuff I've been thinking about all morning and sit down and manifest it - but I don't think those ideas often emerge from the desk, sitting in front of the computer, looking at a blog, or searching for inspiration. It's different for everyone, but when I wake up, that's where all of my ideas are. Instead of going to bed with ideas, I wake up with them. Then I start to taper off and by 1:00 PM. For the rest of the day, I'm getting all the things done that we thought of earlier in the day, figuring out ways to execute them. At night, I break. People are like, "Dude, go home." I become a skipping record. I'll say a word and it won't come out properly. I'll get home and sink into bed and I'll fall asleep.
Finding where that inspiration comes from varies from person to person too. Right now, it's actually books for me. This is a new thing for me because I used to hate reading books, but then I discovered listening to them. I listen to them on double speed, so I can listen to three or four a week, and they paint all sorts of pictures in my head. I'll be at the gym, doing a strength work out, listening to a Dalai Lama, and everyone else is listening to heavy metal. You just look over like yeah, "I'm on Chapter 12, dude." By the way, once you play a book on double speed, you can't go back.
How's Queen Bey?
She's good. She's awesome. She's the hardest working person. She's not real. Every time I'm in her vicinity, I'm trying to figure out where the battery pack is. I'm dead serious. I'll be looking, like this has got to be some sort of government experiment or something.
We were in Manchester at one point, and she had just had her baby, like literally, a couple months ago. We were doing rehearsals and she was going to perform at The Brit Awards at like 10:00 PM. She came in and wanted to do a run through, and when she does a run through, it's not a half-voice or half-dance. It's full force. So she does the full run through, then gets off stage, literally goes to the plane, changes on the plane, goes to perform, and comes straight back. It's late now, it's like 11:45 PM or whatever, and she comes in and says "I'm going to go back and rehearse again,". I think she was vibing off this dope gown she was wearing from the awards. She ended up doing the rehearsal until the morning, in heels, in the gown, in full voice, in full dance, everything. I was blown away.
What do you want your legacy to be? What you want to leave behind?
I guess the legacy would be, are people having fun? Is what we're doing resonating with people? That's really kind of it. That's it.